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Which soft flour is best for southern cooking? [split from Traditional Southern Cooking: Cookbooks thread]

[NOTE: We've moved this discussion from the thread titled "Traditional Southern cooking - cookbooks?" at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/893232 -- The Chowhound Team]

Off-topic but related.

One thing I've learned from all these cookbooks is that it isn't just the recipes that matter, it's the ingredients, some of which are quite different from what we northerners use. Especially flour. In the south they use a softer, lower-protein, more finely milled flour, made from red winter wheat, and this supposedly makes a big difference in biscuits and quick breads, which are core southern foods. (Not cake flour, which has even less protein.

)

The gold standard of southern flours is White Lily, or it used to be. A few years ago Smucker's bought the brand and promptly closed the Tennessee mill, producing the flour somewhere in the midwest. They claim they're using the same wheat and process, but apparently southern cooks can tell the difference just from the look and feel, before even baking with it, and non-cooks can tell the difference in taste tests.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/18/din...

So here's another question. Which soft flour is the best for southern cooking, among today's choices? Is it still White Lily or some other brand? I don't ordinarily order raw ingredients by mail, But if this makes such a difference, in this case maybe I should make an exception for flour. What do you think?

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    1. My mother was a firm believer in White Lily flour and that is what I always used as well. I started baking yeast bread seriously several years ago. Bake at least once and usually twice a week.

      Well, I decided to make some biscuits using the King Arthur AP flour that I use for bread. WTF I say to myself, these are as good as if not better than White Lily biscuits.

      So, to answer your question, White Lily flour is not worth mail ordering unless it's going to keep you up at night thinking about it.

      16 Replies
      1. re: kengk

        Thanks for these responses. But maybe I should explain - since the Chowhound moderators have stripped my message of its original context - that I'm not into southern cooking in a general sort of way. I'm trying to revisit and if possible replicate some of the dishes my grandmother's cook made for us kids 60-some years ago. This was in southwest Virginia (Roanoke to be specific).

        I've collected various cookbooks ranging from the compilations of the local Junior League etc. to Dupree & Graubart's "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking." The latter says that soft, low-protein flours "are used to keep quick breads, biscuits, cakes, and pie crusts light and flaky... Bleaching the flour snowy white also tenderizes it, Thus bleached flour produces a lighter biscuit." Their "pantry" starts at the top with all-purpose soft-wheat flour and all-purpose self-rising soft-wheat flour, so I take it seriously.

        If this kind of flour is used in the south today, it's surely what Grandma's cook used generations ago, and what I need to use if I'm to follow in her footsteps. I've made perfectly good biscuits with ordinary all-purpose flour, but they're my biscuits, not hers, and if I use the wrong ingredients, I feel doomed to failure right from the start. That also applies to Antilope's cornstarch expedient, which Dupree & Graubart describe, but Grandma's cook won't have done any such thing, or needed to. In this I feel I have to be a purist.

        White Lily all-purpose and self-rising flour are not sold in New York where I live. They can be ordered through amazon.com from several sources at a wide range of prices, as low as $3.75 for a 5-pound bag. But maybe it's no longer the best choice, because of the changes since Smuckers' acquisition? Is some other brand better, like Martha White? That too is said to have changed. Advice gratefully received.

        1. re: John Francis

          I'm going to the store this afternoon and I will try to make a note of what southern type flours seem to be most popular here based on stocking levels.

          I have a feeling that there are going to be some that use White Lily or Martha White because that's what mama used. Some are going to buy whatever is cheapest.

          1. re: kengk

            Thanks! I'll be interested in what you find out. What's your location?

            1. re: John Francis

              West Central Georgia.

              Based on the shelf area allowed I feel very confident that White Lily is most popular here. Plus, several brands did not appear to have been touched since the shelfs were last restocked and there were several bags of the White Lily missing, probably sold this morning.

              White Lily and Martha White were both $2.98. King Arthur was $4.78 for comparison.

              1. re: kengk

                I live in West Georgia, too, and White Lily flours are all over the shelves. That's the gold standard here, still, even though the wheat has changed

                1. re: kitchengardengal

                  Have the locals commented on a difference, or is that just a rumor started by the NYT 'test'?

                  1. re: paulj

                    Y'know, paulj, Southerners are very much traditionalists about their food brands. White Lily, Duke's, Coke.... I never asked anyone if they could tell the difference, but there's a good chance that many old timey home cooks here have never tried to make biscuits with anything but WL.
                    Some with a really well developed sense of touch and taste perhaps can tell when their old favorites have changed.

          2. re: John Francis

            Some make a big deal about Smuckers acquiring White Lily, ignoring the fact that they bought it from San Antonio based Pioneer Flour Mills (which originally acquired WL in 1995).

            http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/on...

            Martha White is also a Smucker brand.

            http://www.midstatemills.com/consumer...
            Midstate Mills is another Southern brand.

            a 3 flour test:
            http://www.wired.com/geekmom/2012/05/...
            http://cookingontheside.com/the-resul...

            http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/mag...
            claims flour isn't as important as practice - i.e. skill in handling the dough.

            1. re: paulj

              I skimmed through a couple of those comparison tests. In one the White Lily biscuits rose much higher than the others and in another test they were all about the same. Seems like the leavening might have been past it's prime in the one test.

              1. re: kengk

                Notice in one test that the home made version did worst. That one used Rumford baking powder.
                http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/1299...
                compares baking powders.

                I believe most self rising flours use the ingredients as Calumet b.p.

                In the test where all 3 rose about the same, White Lily required the tester's own baking powder, but she does not specify the brand. The lighter color could be due to different proportions of acid and baking soda. Besides being a leavener, baking soda promotes browning.

                1. re: paulj

                  Rumford, Calumet, and Clabber Girl are all produced by one company in Terre Haute, IN.

                  When I was in college, in one of my foods labs we had to bake something (I can't remember what it has been about 40 years) with each of them, identical recipes and compare results. Each container of baking powder was fresh.

                  Rumford had the highest rise and had no metallic taste. Calumet was next and Clabber Girl the last. Both Calumet Clabber Girl gave a slight metallic taste Since that experiment I have only used Rumford.

                  1. re: Candy

                    Best results are with baking powders that are alumimum free AND use sodium acid pyrophosphate:

                    http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/1299...

                    In my neck of the woods, that's Argo and Bob's Red Mill baking powders.

                    1. re: Karl S

                      I've been using Argo ever since I read that article in '09, after having used Rumford since I was a kid (it was my mom's brand and I stayed with it). Argo's terrific stuff; I haven't looked back since. I have the Bakewell Cream cookbook, too. :)

              2. re: paulj

                Yes, but at least Pioneer was a mill. Smucker's is huge conglomerate that doesn't seem to have demonstrated any feeling for the brands they purchase. As stated, they closed Tennessee mill, dealing a death blow to the local economy in the process. Call me provincial but I think that's a big deal. And to add insult to injury, longtime users swear the quality deteriorated. I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

                1. re: MacGuffin

                  What about that other White Lily mill, the one in Ohio?

                  http://knowtea.com/?p=460

                  "Why did the Knoxville milling facility close?

                  The J.M. Smucker Company purchased the White Lily brand from C.H. Guenther & Sons in 2006 and that transaction did not include the Knoxville milling facility. The C.H. Guenther & Sons Inc. owns that facility and made the decision to close it.
                  " http://www.whitelily.com/media/flour_...

                  "Of the current 72 employees, 39 will be laid off May 1, and the remaining 33 on June 30, Trotterchaud said."
                  http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2008/mar...

                  That is in contrast to the 1000 employees at the Knoxville Scripps Networks Interactives (Food Network) headquarters.
                  http://bluestreak.moxleycarmichael.co...

                  http://www.answers.com/topic/white-li...
                  Everything you want to know, and more, about the history of WL brand. It's been bought and sold many times since 1972.

                  And a more recent discussion
                  http://community.kingarthurflour.com/...

                  1. re: paulj

                    The WL mill in Ohio is the "somewhere in the Midwest" facility to which John Francis refers in his original post. Smucker's first rationalization (still on their site) was that some of the wheat for WL was always milled there and since a lot of the wheat was grown nearby as well, it made sense to maintain as much geographic proximity as possible (as well as to forgo purchase of the southern facilities, I'd guess). Placing the onus on Pioneer in print is of recent vintage; I'm pretty sure it wasn't on the WL site the last time I looked several years ago. According to data in your link, Pioneer had agreed to continue milling for Smucker's in Knoxville; if they closed the plant, it seems very unlikely that it had nothing to do with Smucker's.

          3. You can make a substitute for soft flour by replacing 2 Tbsp per cup of all purpose flour with cornstarch (so each cup used would equal 14 Tbsp all purpose flour and 2 Tbsp cornstarch).

            1. John - This doesn't directly answer your question but I think you'll find much of interest in regards to your quest.

              http://ansonmills.com/

              1. I am a user of White Lily. It is the only flour I use for baking. The results are noticeable. The amount of gluten in regular AP flour makes many baked goods a bit tough unless you are very careful when mixing a dough or batter.